Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Do I Really Need to Buy This?

While driving past a nearly empty parking lot recently, I noticed a couple of items for sale that really caught my attention.

One was a motor home, an enormous vehicle which appeared to have all the bells and whistles. It was a monstrosity with picture windows, multiple air conditioners and a ladder to make getting on the roof easier. This vehicle, with an elaborate grey and black swirl paint design, was quite impressive.

Two boats were stored nearby in the same lot also bearing "for sale" signs. These were large recreational boats parked on trailers. Not "let's row out and catch some fish" boats, but "let's make a weekend out of it" specimens equipped for cruising the lake all day and sleeping a crowd all night.

One phrase ran through my mind when I saw these three examples clustered together and posted for sale: conspicuous consumption.

It's not surprising these days to see such "toys" being sold. Newspaper listings routinely include playthings for use on the water -- ski boats, jet skis, bass boats. Drive through nearly any town and notice for sale signs in driveways as residents unload unnecessary items that seemed like a good idea when they were purchased. Once the novelty wears off and the item remains in the garage week after week, reality (or a spouse) decides it is time to downsize.

What is surprising is that some people are continuing to purchase extravagant items. Obviously sales of recreational toys have dropped off significantly in the past five years. Several local dealers who sold RVs, campers and off-the-road vehicles have either closed or adjusted their inventory to fit the current economy.

But people still buy things they don't need and may not ever plan to use very often. In this economy, why is that?

It's because adults can justify nearly anything if we so choose. See it everyday.

A couple I know recently purchased a second home approximately 2,000 miles away from their home. They then bought a nice camper-van to drive to the new house. The husband had wanted a camper-van since college and decided it was now or never. Then he and his wife recently drove the van across the country to their second house, camping only twice because of the hot weather. They returned home by air, leaving the newly-purchased vehicle parked at their second home. It will be there when they return and decide to use it. To the observer, it all seems a little extravagant.

Another acquaintance and her husband -- both retired -- have lived in the same house for almost 40 years. It is a nice house in a good neighborhood with good friends. The property is mortgage-free and they have redecorated and updated until the house is exactly to their liking. They love that house. Yet they recently bought another much larger house and will move shortly. The new house is located in a more rural setting. It's the type of house they should have lived in when their kids were at home, not now when most couples consider downsizing.

How to explain these surprising purchases by mature adults?

One theory is that folks remain in denial about the current economic frenzy. They don't understand that stories about houses being "underwater" and being foreclosed are not fiction. These events occur around us everyday. Having financial problems or being inundated by debt are not confined to headlines. Financial worries are private matters, discussed over the kitchen table late at night and not usually shared over burgers and beers.

An old friend recently lost her home to foreclosure. Many people who knew her were completely stunned and had no idea that such a thing could happen to someone we knew.

This brings me back to the motor home and boats. A large portion of the population is having difficulties. Now. Everywhere. It's time to re-evaluate the next big purchase and to speculate what might happen if the economy continues down the same path for a while longer.

We can all benefit from paying a bit more attention.

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